Sermon: First Sunday in Lent (A)/March 5, 2017/Randall Hehr
Today is the First Sunday in Lent, and this sermon is about a journey in the wilderness. St. Hilary, a fourth century bishop, once wrote: “Everything that seems empty is full of the angels of God.” Kathleen Norris quotes Hilary when describing the brutal, barren landscape of South Dakota where she and her husband moved, leaving behind their life in New York City. She says none of her friends understood the move. As a writer and artist, how could she leave the stimulating environment of the great city? How could she leave the center of the universe for a place where the dust storms rage in the heat of the summer, and the winter blizzards keep you isolated for days upon end? Like Jacob’s angel, she writes, “the region requires that you wrestle with it before it bestows a blessing.” And clearly she received that blessing after moving there to occupy the house her grandparents built. In fact, she says the vast emptiness of the Great Plains formed her spiritually. She embraced both the solitude and the community, and she describes how the deprivations of South Dakota life helped her see small gifts that she would never have been able to perceive in her life back in the city. In her book, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, she writes, “Conversion means starting with who we are, not who we wish we were.”
Another author who writes passionately about the wilderness is Joan Chittister. She describes a wilderness as a life experience that is thrust upon you, one you do not choose. She writes about what happens when the bottom drops out of life, when all your aspirations go down the drain, and you are left with nothing but a feeling of emptiness and desolation. She, too, references Jacob wrestling with the angel of God through the night, being wounded and blessed at the same time. She, too, was in the midst of an important journey in life when she entered the wilderness. As a sister in the Benedictine order, she enrolled in the Iowa State University master of fine arts program in creative writing. Suddenly, without explanation, the superior of the order sent word that Joan was to leave the university and report to their summer camp as a cook. In her book, Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope, Joan describes her anger, loss of purpose, and feelings of failure. But strikingly, like Kathleen Norris, she writes about conversion, which she says is, “The kind of change that shocks us into new beginnings…forces us down unwanted paths…the call to think differently about who God is and who we are.”
What are the wilderness experiences of life? When we have lost meaningful work or vocation. When we face a serious illness or disability, or a life-changing family circumstance. When we struggle after the death of a family member. It is any time in life when the familiar pathways are gone, and we find ourselves wandering in unknown territory. It is also a time when God can work in our lives, transforming us. It is also a time when God can give us the capacity to embrace the unknown instead of clinging to the past. The wilderness experience is often about letting go.
The wilderness is very much a part of scripture. Noah builds the ark and sails off with a sample of creation into the unknown, waiting for a sign from God that marks the beginning of a new world. Jonah travels in the belly of the whale after refusing to carry out God’s work. The children of Israel wander in the wilderness after leaving slavery in Egypt. Long before they reach the promised land, they are crying, “How long will this last?” That is a question we might ask in the middle of the wilderness? “How long will I go on feeling the struggle, fear and confusion?” The biblical answer, taken from several of the references I have given, is perhaps as short as forty days, or as long as forty years. That means it feels like a long time.
All of these biblical stories shape the background to Jesus’ journey in the wilderness. Matthew’s gospel tells us that he was in the wilderness forty days and forty nights. Notice how Matthew’s gospel links his experience in the wilderness with his baptism by John. The same Spirit that descends upon him in the Jordan leads him into the wilderness. Immediately following the wilderness, Jesus begins his public ministry in Galilee, proclaiming the Good News. It is the Spirit of God that led him in all three experiences.
Matthew’s gospel tells us that Jesus was tempted during his wilderness experience. He was exhausted, hungry and vulnerable, yet he kept his trust in God. He did not put God to the test. He did not turn to idols. The great temptation for us is to be pulled off course in the wilderness, to try to be someone or something that we are not, and to fail to stay true to the clear identity we have as a gift from God. Think how many people turn to alcohol or other addictions during wilderness times of life. Think how easy it is to turn to idols.
Today I want to remind you that you are never alone in the wilderness. God is with you. Often when I meet with people going through the wilderness, I encourage them to draw strong, resourceful people closer to them. I think of these spiritual friends as “anchors.” They are like sponsors in Alcoholics Anonymous. They are ready to receive a phone call at any time.
A journey through the wilderness is part of life. Everything that seems empty is full of the angels of God. It is an opportunity for God to transform us. You are not alone in the wilderness. God is with you, and there are resources to help you along the way.